live show
A well-chosen set list goes a long way to ensuring your audience is having a good time.

From busking in the streets of Liverpool, UK to performing a bar gig during a blizzard in Charleston, Virginia; from being support act for a Voice finalist in a marina in Turkey to singing for his supper in a restaurant in Pennsylvania, Steve Mac aka The WaveWatcher is a small venue cover artist who now shares his hard earned #giggingtips to his thousands of followers on Twitter through his @The_WaveWatcher account.

By Steve Mac (The WaveWatcher)

Even though I was just a teen when I first started as a street entertainer, I clearly recall my setlist, mainly because it consisted of the only three songs I knew. However as none of the passers-by stopped to listen for more than a couple of minutes my lack of an extensive repertoire wasn’t a deal breaker.

But I did notice that some small children would pester their parents for money which they would then proudly put into my open guitar case. 

As Mrs Mac didn’t raise no dummy, that night I taught myself Wheels of the Bus and the next day I was back. As soon as I saw youngsters approaching with their parents, I would segue into my new tune.

When I counted up my take was nearly double the previous day’s and I learned a lesson that has stuck with me to this day: when you’re playing for yourself – play what you like’, but when you’re playing for someone who is paying you – play what they like.

When you’re playing for yourself – play what you like’, but when you’re playing for someone who is paying you – play what they like.

Steve Mac aka The WaveWatcher

Cater Your Cover Songs To The Audience

If your idea is to play cover tunes live, an easy way to decide what cover songs to put in your set is to estimate the average age of your audience and then work out the year they would have been 15 years old. Once you’ve done that, go online and search for hits from that year. Look out especially for tunes that have been covered or used in movies/adverts as these will have even more appeal across broader age ranges.

I haven’t heard this song for ages, I love it” is exactly the emotion you want.

Using this method, you can create a bespoke setlist for your intended audience and avoid being another hackneyed Folsom Prison, Brown Eyed Girl artist (great songs, but soooo overplayed).

Get The Set List Order Right

Once you have enough songs, (I tend to banter a lot and so use about 12 per hour) it’s time to decide what order they should be in.

Start by writing all the songs titles on a large piece of paper and by each title write the key it’s in, as well as the tempo i.e. (you can use BPM, or Slow, Med or Up, whichever works best for you). I also add a letter L for songs where I use a looper and H for tunes that feature a harmonica.

Now cut the paper so that there’s one song per strip so that you can easily switch the order.

Or, you could join the 21st century and use a setlist app on your tablet which makes the whole process so much easier.

You next decision is to decide what it is you want to encourage your audience to do as the set progresses i.e. listen, dance, sing along etc. For example, if you are in a bar your overall aim is to encourage them to stay and hand over money to the barman.

Stop thinking about individual songs and more of how they will fit together to have successful show and meet those aims. 

For a typical evening bar gig, I will try to have a series of sections that each build in temp and energy before returning back to start again. 

Think ‘start with a candle and end with a fire, finishing the last section with an inferno’.

Despite ensuring all of your set is ‘killer’ and not ‘filler’, not all songs are equal in importance to your audience, in that your first two songs are crucial in deciding if it’s worth buying another drink and staying. Whilst your last song should leave them wanting more. Your show then becomes divided into three parts for simplicity.

Think ‘start with a candle and end with a fire, finishing the last section with an inferno’.

Steve Mac aka The WaveWatcher

Part one: introduce yourself

Let’s start at the very beginning (I am told it’s a very good place to start.)

Select your opener from your medium tempo/energy list. This song should be well within your vocal range and easily within your playing ability which will enable you to “warm up” as you perform it.

There is no point in it being a sing-along song as it’s far too soon in the evening. I like something with both a long intro or outro using the former to tweak the sound levels and the latter to introduce myself over.

The second song whilst being the same sort of tempo should have a different feel/genre to avoid you predictable.

By the third song you are starting to gently ramp up the tempo, but ensure you don’t ever play more than two songs in the same key consecutively. 

Part two: momentum is built

You are now roughly twenty minutes in, so time for something different, so choose a song that features a harmonica (remember a little harmonica goes a long way), finger-style guitar, a looper pedal or maybe a song from a different era. There are a myriad of options as long as it draws the attention back to you. Now with the next few songs keep building until you finish the first section with a high energy tune. 

By now your audience shouldn’t be able to predict what your next song will be with any degree of confidence, they just know it will delight them. This is a great time for your first ‘tip jar‘ speech.

It’s now time to start the next section of your set and it important that the change from your last high energy song is dramatic, so choose a song from your low tempo list as once more you begin to start to build up the energy. 

By the middle of the second section you should be receiving feedback from the crowd as their confidence in you is established. So, it’s time to throw them a curve ball. 

I call these ‘musical hand grenades’ and their purpose is to raise a smile whilst bringing the room’s focus back to you. It may be the theme from a cartoon or maybe a shred of The Flight of the Bumblebee anything that will get a double take. I sometimes switch to a vocal effect (octave lower) and launch into The Bare Necessities.

Part three: the climax and resolution

The final section will differ in that it is now time to encourage audience participation through getting  them dancing, singing along etc. 

Leave them wanting more.

Immediately prior to your last tune is the time to thank the crowd, do a last tip jar speech, say when you will next be appearing etc. and let them know ‘this is the last song, let’s take the roof off’ before playing the most high energy song of the night. Take a moment to shout goodnight and accept the rapturous acclaim, well a bit of applause anyway, then leave the stage.


It’s always wise to have an encore song, even if you go several outings without ever using it. An encore’s purpose is to bring the crowd down from the high of the last song but at the same time leaving them with a warm sense of having had a great night. I frequently use All You Need Is Love by The Beatles as it fits all the criteria and old or young everyone knows it well enough to sing with the chorus.

An encore’s purpose is to bring the crowd down from the high of the last song but at the same time leaving them with a warm sense of having had a great night.

Steve Mac aka The WaveWatcher

Prepare Your Performance

Now you have your setlist, it’s time to rehearse not only the songs but the transitions between them and banter. You should be so prepared that you can ‘fake’ spontaneity.

Above all, stay flexible and responsive to your audience who will never cease to surprise with youngsters wanting oldies and oldies shouting for some Kanye. But with a pre prepared setlist you will have a base to work from.

A set list that is curated to your audience will ensure maximum engagement and crowd participation, from every age group and personality type in the crowd.

(Edited by Pana Markides)